COUNCILS across Essex are being told to treat illegal traveller encampments like any other incursion in a bid to stop the county being seen as a “soft touch”.

County Hall traveller boss Sue Lissimore, who is also a Colchester councillor, has called on district, borough and city councils to get tougher on travellers who pitch up unauthorised on council land.

It comes after official figures show the number of illegal encampments in Essex has more than tripled in the past three years.

In 2013/14, there was 103 unauthorised encampments.

In comparison, there were 374 recorded in 2016/17.

Mrs Lissimore (Con) put forward the proposal at a full meeting of Essex County Council, which is responsible for dealing with travellers across the county.

She said: “What we want to see is encampments being dealt with in the same way as if anyone had made an incursion onto council or privately-owned land.

“We’re talking about equality and, of course, we respect people who are part of the travelling community but that does not make them above the law.”

The Essex County Council cabinet member for housing, property and planning added: “When I took up the role, I was told by officers that travellers come to Essex because it is seen as a soft touch.

“We have worked really hard through the summer to change that.”

Her council motion came as Essex Police announced a specialised unit which will specifically deal with traveller incursions.

It means only officers who are aware of the law relating to travellers’ encampments will be sent out.

That could mean an increase in the use of Section 61 notices, which gives trespassers immediate direction to leave.

Mrs Lissimore added: “One of the problems we have had with the police is that an officer who hasn’t dealt with an encampment before will be sent out and they might not know all the rules. Hopefully that will change.”

As part of her motion, which was agreed by the council, she stated: “This council recognises that tackling unauthorised encampments is a complex issue which will require a multi-agency approach.

“This council, therefore, calls upon all Essex district, borough and city authorities to work together with Essex County Council and Essex Police to identify and act on the root causes of this increase for the benefit of both residents and traveller communities.

“In the meantime, this council urges all authorities to treat unauthorised encampments in the same way as they would treat any other unauthorised incursion on to their land and work to minimise the disruption unauthorised encampments can cause.”